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TRAVEL & STUFF

Don't panic!

By roving hack Ignatius Rake
Ljubljana, Slovenia

Posted June 24, 2012
Where's my cricket bat? Not sure but that might be the Dragon Bridge. © Ignatius Rake

As any galactic hitchhiker knows, when things go awry, don't panic.


The plan was simple.

I would take the 01.38 train from Salzburg, kip in a seat or a couchette for a few hours and then wake up fresh as a daisy in time for our arrival in Ljubljana at 06.05 and from there catch my flight the following day.

Not only would I be covering ground as I slept, but I would also be avoiding hotel fees for a night.

Brilliant.

What a plan!

The only possible flaw lay in the fact that the train, which had come from Germany, split into two parts at Salzburg.

One part went on to Zagreb via Ljubljana while the other went to Budapest.

This was not the first time I had encountered such an arrangement so I made a point of asking a porter which part of the train went to Ljubljana before boarding.

"This one," he said, pointing to the carriage directly in front of me.

"Do you know if there are any couchettes available?"

"You will have to ask him," he replied, pointing this time to a guard standing in the doorway of the sleeping carriage immediately to our left.

Thanking him, I did just that, asking the said guard, "Entschuldigung. Is this the sleeping car for Ljubljana?"

"Yes," he affirmed.

"Jolly good. Are there any couchettes free?"

"No. I am sorry but you will have to sit in one of the other carriages."

"OK. And that part of the train," I pointed to the carriage to the right from whence I had just come, "is definitely going to Ljubljana?"

"Yes. That part of the train goes to Zagreb and Ljubljana."

"It doesn't go to Budapest?"

"No, it goes to Zagreb and Ljubljana."

"Danke schön."

"No problem."

I then walked back to the first carriage that all agreed was going to the former Yugoslavia and hauled aboard my bulging suitcase.

Finding a free seat opposite a snoring young couple, I plonked my arse down and waited for the offski.

About 10 minutes after leaving the station, the conductor came through.

I handed him my ticket to Ljubljana, which he examined, stamped and handed back to me.

Sleep arrived on swift wings soon after.


RUDE AWAKENING
We were stationary when I prized my eyelids open.

A glance at my watch told me it was coming up for 06.00.

Ah, Ljubljana, I thought, only to notice something amiss when I peered out the window.

Hmm, we were in Vienna.

Still half asleep and unable to rouse the geographer inside of me, I put our location down to us simply being late, my hazy thoughts conditioned by years of woefully unpunctual British trains.

My eyes fell closed and I was once more back in the land of nod.

The next thing I knew, we were moving again and a different conductor was asking to see my ticket.

"How long before we get to Ljubljana?" I slurred from my slumber.

"We are not going to Ljubljana. This train goes to Budapest."

"What?!"

His words hit me like a bucket of ice water.

I was now very much awake.

"They told me this was the train for Ljubljana. I even had my ticket stamped!"

"Where are you from?" he inquired impassively.

"Britain."

"No. Where are you from on this train? München?"

"Ah, I see. Right. No. Salzburg."

"Wait here."

I did, stewing in a broth of my own juices liberally peppered with profanities and big dollops of "bollocks".

Then, like a storm blowing itself out, a resigned calm befell me.

As Joshua David Stone once wrote, "Why panic when you can you pray?"

These words now took on a very clear resonance.

After all, other than trying to commandeer the train, there really wasn't much I could do other than hope, pray and hatch an alternative plan.

If it all went pear-shaped, I'd just have to blow out Ljubljana and my flight and instead get a train from Vienna via Katowice.

I had done a very similar trip from nearby Bratislava a few years earlier so I knew it was both feasible and affordable.

This time, though, the journey would not only be long and tedious but also marred with failure and annoyance.

But if that was what I'd have to do then tough tits.

It wasn't the end of the world, just a bit crap and certainly not worth having a heart attack over.

It was then, as I accepted my fate, that the conductor returned with a well-thumbed book of timetables.

"To get to Ljubljana you will have to change at Bruck an der Leitha. This is the next station. Then you must take the 07.17 train to Wien Süd. You will have 15 minutes before the 07.57 leaves for Ljubljana. You must not miss this train. It is the only direct train today. You will be in Ljubljana at 14.10."

"Will I have to buy another ticket?"

"No, this ticket is good."

I thanked him in as many languages as I could muster then exhaled a sigh of relief.

But I was not out of the woods just yet.



Obs and doms: The Robba Fountain. © Ignatius Rake

NEW LAND SPEED RECORD
After alighting the train at Bruck an der Leitha in the company of two handcuffed Romanis and a couple of local rozzers, I stood on the platform and waited in a Zen-like state for my choo-choo.

Within 10 minutes, I found myself standing aboard a fairly crowded commuter train.

From what the conductor had said, it should have pulled into Wien Süd at 07.42.

However, at 07.45 we were still idling somewhere out in the sticks.

The stress levels were rising again.

Increasingly unsure as to whether I had taken the right train, I asked a chap in a suit next to me: "Entschuldigung. Is this train going to Wien Süd?"

"Yes," he said.

"When does it get there?"

"At four minutes past eight."

Bollocks.

Katowice here I come.

Just what happened next is anyone's guess but I'm more than happy to put it down to the power of prayer no matter what old Dicky Dorky or Derren Brown might say.

For at exactly 07.55 we were pulling in to Wien Süd.

From what I recall, it's not the most beautiful train station on Earth, utterly paling in comparison to Antwerp Centraal, Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji or even Bodmin Parkway, but man was I glad to see it.

Launching out the doors like an Exocet, I threw myself behind the weight of my 40-tonne suitcase, using its momentum to wee all over the land speed record as I ran like a loon with a rocket up his nipsy to the main building.

A quick glance at the departures board told me the platform I wanted was up a flight of stairs, which I somehow hurdled in 8.3 nanoseconds, propelled no doubt by the stream of obscenities issuing from my gob.

A further dash through the upper concourse and suddenly the back end of my train was in sight.

Then it was within reach.

Then I was grasping up and swinging open the very last door of the very last carriage.

By the power of Grayskull, I yanked my suitcase up above my head and hurled it onto the train, my body flying up the metal steps behind it like a jet-powered salmon on the bonk.

Crashing to the floor beside the still smouldering wheels of my suitcase, I was joined by two other kung fu masters who came leaping aboard in my wake.

Then the door slammed shut and the train jerked forward.

We were off!

With seconds to spare I had somehow made it.

But judging from the pain in my gut I'd also given myself a hernia.

A line from Zappa's Billy the Mountain flittered through my head: "Oh f--k, I'm gonna need a truss."1


BREWED WITH LOVE
Fortunately, I didn't.

Neither did I die a few hours later from some hideous disease passed on from the huge great tick I found gorging on my stomach when I showered in my hotel near Tabor.

Admittedly, other than watching Green Wing, I have had very little in the way of formal medical training.

Notwithstanding, it is with all confidence that I put both my rapid recovery and redoubtable resilience down to the health-giving qualities of Pivo Laško, a pleasantly strange 4.9% Slovenian beer weirdly enough heralding from the eastern spa town of Laško, where, the label said, it has been "brewed with love since 1825".

I had stumbled upon this miraculous cure-all while sitting in the salubrious comforts of the train's restaurant car.

From overhearing a heated debate between two ticket inspectors as I lounged there, I also discovered that Slovenian, a Slavic language, sounds a lot like Polish spoken with an Italian accent.

Furthermore, I soon learnt that just like in Poland no one understood me when I tried speaking Polish to them, even when I combined it with my best Joe Dolce impersonation ("Cześć, dupek! Shaddap you kurwa face!").

Luckily, though, being a born linguist I was soon able to deduce that the Slovenian word for 'beer', viz pivo, is pronounced exactly the same as its Polish counterpart, piwo.

Sorted.

I was now fluent and I'd only been in the country 20 minutes.

After winding our way through stunning Balkan scenery and the small Styrian town of Pragersko, where on a station wall someone had taken the time to scrawl "Ela ♥ your Denis", a statement of such profundity that I was immediately driven to verse2, we eventually arrived in Ljubljana.

The old capital of Carniola and for many years known as Laibach, Ljublana straddles the Ljubljanica River, a fairly short watercourse that ultimately empties into the Black Sea via the Sava and the Danube.

Although not quite in the same league as Hamburg, Venice or Stoneybridge, it is nonetheless something of a city of bridges, deriving much civic pride from such functional art installations as Čevljarski most (the Cobblers' Bridge), Šentjakobski most (the St James's Bridge) and of course Biffinski most (the Biffin Bridge).

However, the city's two most notable river crossings are without doubt Tromostovje (the Triple Bridge) and Zmajski most (the Dragon Bridge).

Indeed, so notable are these latter two structures that when I asked the hotel receptionist for a freebie map, he promptly without prompting circled them in ballpoint for me.

Admittedly, I'd never heard of them before but rather than parading my ignorance by saying something like "What are they, then?" I instead feigned delight.

"Ah, so that's where they are!" I said, making a point of checking them out to see what was so special about them.

These two bridges, it turned out, are very aptly named.

While the former consists of three rather tasteful balustraded bridges that connect Prešemov trg with the heart of the old town, the latter is adorned with four bloody horrible dragons.

Opened in 1901 in honour of Emperor Franz Josef I, who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire (of which Slovenia was a part) from 1848 to 1916 and who was presumably some kind of reptilian shapeshifter3, this particular structure was once one of the largest reinforced concrete bridges in the world.

Today, it is still fêted by many as a prime example of the Vienna Secession, an artistic movement that listed among its ranks such luminaries as Gustav Klimt and the architect Otto Wagner.

Personally, I wasn't much taken by it.

In fact, every time I looked at those dragons and their really arsey expressions, I just wanted to slap 'em round the chops with a cricket bat.

Damned ugly buggers if you ask me.

Which is somewhat at odds with the rest of the city.

As is the case with Salzburg, Ljubljana's grander buildings are heavily indebted to the Baroque tastes of the Hapsburgs, who, with a brief Napoleonic interlude, lorded it over the place in one form or another from 1278 to 1918.

However, Ljubljana isn't some twee time capsule filled with touts dressed like Citizen Bidet or the Duc de Pommfrit4.

Instead, it casually marries the aesthetic qualities of a Mr Kipling French Fancy with some well-worn, peeling crumbliness, giving this generally laid-back place the down-to-earth feel of a fully functioning city in a manner similar to Poz or Wrocław in Poland.

As with Poz, Ljubljana is a fairly low-rise place, with few buildings that I saw going much over four floors and an attic.

There are, of course, exceptions to this in the form of commie-era tower blocks and the 13-storey Nebotičnik (the Skyscraper) on Slovenska cesta, which when built in 1933 was not only the tallest structure in the Balkans at just over 70 m, but also Europe's tallest residential building and its ninth tallest building overall5.

Predating these, there are also the numerous Baroque churches that abound in this largely agnostic metropolis.

A classic example is the Catholic Saint Nicholas' Cathedral, the big green dome of which resembles a giant Chad gazing down over Mestni trg onto the 10 m high obelisk of the Robbov vodnjak (the Robba Fountain)6.

Again like Salzburg, the city nestles beneath a hilltop castle (Ljubljanski grad) that can be accessed via a funicular.

After feasting on the views of the surrounding hills and mountains from its battlements, I wound my way via a leafy stretch of parkland down to Krekov trg, which not only plays host to a dribbling fountain and some kind of puppet theatre, but also a number of old skool bars.

Here I wasted no time in putting my knowledge of Slovenian to the test.

The results were impressive.

From my waiter I learnt that 'I don't understand [you]' is ne razumem, which is very much like the Polish nie rozumiem.

Fortunately, he could also speak English.

Feeling hungry, I walked to the river and ate a duck.

By now the sun had called it quits and the elegant esplanades of Hribarjevo nabrežje and Cankarjevo nabrežje were thronging with evening drinkers.

Never one to shy away from first-hand geographical inquiry, I selflessly threw myself into the mêlée, conducting a series of rigorous transects to determine the nature of the city's nightlife.

Much to my surprise, the data I amassed revealed that, despite the teeming hordes outside, the insides of the bars lining these streets were without fail completely and utterly devoid of punters.

Literally everyone not paid to stand behind a counter was outside enjoying their drinks with an accompanying coffin nail, pipe or cigar, a pretty clear indication of just how much the city's UN-induced smoking ban was at odds with the wishes of its people7.



Pivo, please: I've just been battling dragons. ©Ignatius Rake

BEDTIME FOR BONZO
By the time midnight arrived, my thoughts had moved on to the practicalities of catching my flight the next day.

After a streetside pint opposite the arches of the central market, I decided that my best course of action lay in finding an offie and procuring a couple of nightcaps to be drunk while bidding Ljubljana fond adieu from my hotel window.

As I wandered back, however, it soon became apparent that if there were any such emporia around then they were exceptionally well hidden.

It was then that I encountered a group of male and female youngsters aged between 18 and 21 all clutching bottles of red wine that they were caining courtesy of disposable plastics cups.

As our paths crossed they beseeched me to stop.

"We want to open wine bottle," one of them explained. "Do you have...?"

He paused and mimed the use of a corkscrew.

"Sorry, not on me," I said.

His face dropped.

While they had opened their first few bottles with door keys, they were understandably keen to find a more ergonomic implement with which to open the rest.

As none was forthcoming, out came the keys again.

I sympathised with their predicament.

"Is there a shop near here where I can buy beer?" I asked, hoping they would feel the same about mine.

"No," one of them replied. "You can only buy beer in city centre."

"Have some wine instead," said another, pulling out a fresh cup and filling it to the brim with one of their already open bottles.

It tasted pretty good.

"We are going to Orto," someone else chipped in.

"Otto? Otto Parts? What's that?" I asked.

"It is late-night bar."

"It is not far from here."

"Come and join us. We walk and drink!"

"Yes, you can buy beer there. We show you Slovenia!"

"Hmm," I said. "OK then."


MURDER ON THE DANCE FLOOR
My new companions, it turned out, were "the only seven drama students in Ljubljana", some of whom were no doubt destined for great things playing the Dane.

What became of them that night, though, I shall probably never know as on reaching Orto I immediately lost them amid the upstairs mosh pit.

Rather than grappling the night away with the Wreckin' Crew to Slovenian punk and psychobilly in Orto Club, I opted instead for the slightly less crowded Orto Bar downstairs, where I found a suitable perch at its very long and very red bar counter.

The place stayed open until 04.00 but at about 03.00 my pipe and slippers were dropping hints about check-in so I decided to call it a night.

It was at this point that I realised that I didn't have a clue where I was other than some place called Otto Maddox, or something.

Fortunately, the friendliness shown me by the numerous Ljubljanans I'd encountered during my brief time in the city extended to the barstaff, one of whom very kindly called me a cab on his mobile phone.

"Najlepša hvala," I thanked him.

"No problem," he replied.

My flight the next day departed at 12.40.

The gate closed at 12.25.

I woke up at 11.15.

The airport, I had previously been informed, was a good 30 minutes' drive away.

Strangely enough, I didn't bother with a shower.

"I've gotta check out, I've gotta get a taxi and I've gotta get a plane," I informed the two receptionists in less time than I'd normally have taken to say "Good morning".

"I am taxi driver," a voice to my left said.

"Shit hot!" I replied.

"You are lucky," said one of the receptionists, rapidly totting up my bill. "He is very good."

And by jiminy was he right.

I have never seen anyone drive so fast yet so competently and intelligently in all my life.

In Poland, it is generally considered both cool and manly to drive like a total tool, viz as fast as physically possible without any regard whatsoever for anyone or anything, passengers, pedestrians and brick walls alike.

This man, though, was not like that at all.

Yes, he drove fast, very fast, but at no point did it ever feel that he was anything other than fully in control of his vehicle and fully aware of what was going on around him.

I don't know whether he was an ex-copper, ex-military or simply channelling the spirits of Roland Ratzenberger and Colin McRae, but it was obvious to me that he had done a defensive driving course.

"Don't worry," he said as we tore it out of the city and onto the long stretch of freeway to the airport. "You will get your plane and still have time to buy your girlfriend Slovenian wine!"

And thanks to him that's exactly what happened.


Footnotes

1) Billy the Mountain (Zappa), from the 1972 Mothers album Just Another Band from LA.

2) The poem in question went as follows:

Ela, love your Denis.
He's the greatest Denis around.
You've searched for a Denis all your life
And he's the best one that you've found.
He may be squat and ugly,
Stupid and mean to boot,
But at least he washes once a month
And eats pond slime like a coot.


3) As with countless other towns, cities and whathaveyous around the world, the dragon is Ljubljana's surprisingly original symbol and leitmotif. Is David Icke right or has the world simply been populated by dullards with absolutely no imagination whatsoever since time immemorial? Why not some puppies in an old boot or a hat with legs?

4) Citizen Bidet and the Duc de Pommfrit (played, respectively, by Peter Butterworth (1919–79) and Charles Hawtrey (1914–88)) are two French Revolutionary era characters from Don't Lose Your Head (1966), which along with Follow That Camel (1967) is one of only two Carry On films not to have 'Carry On' in its title. If all that means nothing to you, check this out.

As the birthplace of Wolfgang "Cold Hand" Mozart (1756–91), Salzburg is awash with touts dressed in period costume replete with mobile phones and cigarettes who mercilessly hassle passersby with the hushed words: "Psst. Wanna but some Magic Flute?"

5) At present, the tallest building in Ljubljana and Slovenia as a whole is the 89 m high Kristalna palača (Crystal Palace), which opened in May 2011. It is not clear whether the owners are aware that the original Crystal Palace in London burnt down in 1936. Call me superstitious, but isn't that tempting fate a bit, like calling your new airship the Hindenburg?

6) Actually, it's a replica. The original fountain was moved to the National Gallery in 2006. Officially named Vodnjak treh kranjskih rek (the Fountain of the Three Rivers of Carniola), it was designed by an Italian chap called Francesco Robba and constructed between 1743 and 1751. It is largely modelled on the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (the Fountain of the Four Rivers) in Rome's Piazza Navona. So there.

7) All those bollocks smoking bans being rolled out across the planet, literally from Afghanistan to Zambia, are the result of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC). Most people have never heard of the WHO FCTC, but that's who's doing it, Lambert.




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